Friday, 9 September 2011

Irkutsk to Ulaanbataar

In which it takes 7 hours to travel 20kms
Starring a persistent temple keeper who demanded to see flesh

The border crossing from Russia to Mongolia is to say the least, time consuming.  At the border town you get turfed off the train for two hours to wander around a dust bowl village where there is not much to do besides buying fly paper (we were having some issues) and photographing ladas. Back on the train, the doors are locked and the exit proceedings commence with passport collections and compartment inspections by gruff men in army boots and sniffer dogs.  An hour later the passports are returned and there’s more sitting around before the train eventually shunts along to the border post where it stops for two minutes, then trundles on past the obelisk that marks the actual border.  Then another brief stop at the Mongolian border post stopping at the Mongolian border post of Sukr Bataar where you’re allowed off again while the train is shortened, decoupled from its engine and added onto another train.  More passport checks, more sniffer dogs, more compartment inspections and finally we set off into the wilds of Mongolia. 

Our ‘safety’ briefing on Ulaanbataar had set the tone perfectly – you will get pick pocketed, no walking around after dark, no walking around on your own and leave everything you care about in the world locked in the hotel safe.   It’s a hellish city with sparsely distributed attractions.  Just crossing the road is an experience in itself. The Green Man, when he appears, means nothing, the cars continue to roar through the intersection, hooting incessantly if they so much as have to tap the brake.

Gemma braving the streets
In the past few years the population has increased ten fold as harsh winters and poverty have driven the nomadic population into the city.  The centre is rapidly filling up with high rise buildings but the outlying districts are kilometre after kilometre of ger settlements with people living in very basic conditions – no sewerage or electricity and sharing a single well between five streets.  We went to go and visit a two of the families and had lunch in a ger.  They are made out of felt that is waterproofed by smoke from the fire in the centre and take 6hours to put up and 20 minutes to take down. Most families have two – one for living in and one for storage. 

About 85% of the city’s population are Tibetan Bhudists – this only twenty years after the downfall of communism during which most of the country’s monasteries and temples had been destroyed.  Gandan in the centre of UB has been well restored and there are now over 600 monks living there.  

 The only other attraction is the Winter Palace which was made all the more appealing by the its state of disrepair – knee high grass in the courtyards, flaking paint.  The main building contains an enormous collection of stuffed animals (everything from Tigers to puffer fish), the Royal Ger covered in the skin of 150 leopards and a tiny doll house like ger that is filled with miniature furniture. 

In the evening we went to a Cultural Show – exactly the kind of thing I usually avoid like the plague -which was really fascinating partly because of the musical instruments – all the string instruments had only two strings and their handles had been carved into the shape of horses heads. There was a trumpet the length of the room and a piano with no keys that was played by tapping the strings with a little hammer.  Highlight was a man doing Mongolian throat singing which makes a truly eerie noise not unlike one of the metal wobble board things that Rolf Harris plays. 

The Telej National Park was a bit of disappointment as it was largely indistinguishable from the equally littered surrounding countryside except for the fact that around every bend was another camp of 15 or so tourist gers.  

Nonetheless we still loved ours when we got there and the scenery was rather spectacular.  We went for a walk up behind the camp over a large hill and to a monastery where a strange keeper demanded to see Abby’s legs and then shepherded us around pointing out the more unusual artwork on the temple’s walls and then tried to drag us all back to his cabin one after another.

When we retired to our ger in the evening we discovered that the light didn’t work and reporting this turned it into a major rewiring exercise that took over 90 minutes on mostly live wires and included a small electrical fire in the switch.  The end result was wiring completely around the switch (cutting off the earth wires as they went) so that the only way to turn off the light was to clasp the bulb in a towel (dry) and give it a quarter turn. 

In the morning we had an archery lesson. It snowed (in September!) forever settling any thoughts I might have harboured about one day living in Mongolia.

More pictures of UB here:

And the national park:

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